Can Geoff Garin Save Clinton?

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Charles Dharapak / AP

Hillary Rodham Clinton campaigns at Liberty High School in Hillsboro, Oregon, April 5, 2008.

The man that Hillary Clinton brought in to replace controversial strategist Mark Penn got his start in politics 32 years ago in Pennsylvania, the very state that is so crucial to her presidential hopes now. Back then, however, Geoff Garin was working for a Republican.

It was the successful 1976 Senate campaign of Pennsylvania Congressman John Heinz that gave Garin enough of a bug for politics that he decided to defer going to law school. It was also where he met pollster Peter Hart, who hired him two years later and made him president of Hart Research Associates in 1984. And law school? "I think I'm on my 35th deferral," Garin says with a laugh.

In the meantime, he has become one of the most well-regarded and sought-after Democratic pollsters, giving campaign advice to a host of Senators, including Illinois's Richard Durbin, New York's Charles Schumer, Vermont's Patrick Leahy and North Dakota's Kent Conrad. He also did work on Hillary Clinton's 2000 Senate campaign. "On the Democratic side," says one campaign veteran, "he is a totally trusted person."

So Garin was not a surprising choice to step into the gap left by Penn, who was pressured to step aside after the Wall Street Journal revealed last week that he had advised the Colombian government on its efforts to win passage of a bilateral trade treaty with the United States — a deal that Hillary Clinton opposes. Not only did Penn's work put him at odds with the stated position of his candidate, but it outraged Clinton's allies in organized labor, whose efforts she is counting on to help her win the make-or-break Pennsylvania primary on April 22.

Garin also has a long list of clients from the corporate and philanthropic worlds, as well as advocacy groups like EMILY's List, a political organization that raises money for pro-choice Democratic women candidates. And while he will continue advising other clients, he says it will not present a conflict with his work for the Clinton campaign, as most of his work with corporate clients is on business-to-business issues, not government policies.

For a while, it looked as though Garin might be sidelined from the 2008 race, after his initial client — former Virginia Governor Mark Warner — decided not to run. Garin began working quietly for the Clinton campaign about three weeks ago, and has chosen not to take an official title, which is a sharp contrast from Penn, who insisted on being referred to as the campaign's "chief strategist."

Campaign officials expect Garin to work on bringing consistency to a message that has been too focused on the daily give-and-take between their candidate and Barack Obama. "Where exactly was the grand strategy?" one grumbled when asked about Penn's tenure. "He had one playbook." A source close to the campaign said Garin has been a welcome addition and a big morale booster. "He's got that gentle manner and everyone feels much better," the adviser said. "But at this point, I'm not sure how much he can do" to dig the struggling campaign out of the ditch in which it now finds itself.

What's more, though Penn has been demoted, he has not entirely departed from the campaign. As one associate put it, Penn has been "slapped in the head and will have a smaller role." Despite the removal of his formal title and role, he will continue doing polling, and both Clintons have called him for advice. One source said Penn was even on the campaign's message-of-the-day call on Monday morning, and was expected to participate in a debate preparation session with the candidate in the afternoon.